Chuck Thompson has a book out called Better Off Without ’Em: A Northern Manifesto for Southern Secession. While researching for the book, he traveled along the south and was, for some reason, not graciously received. He writes:
If it did nothing else, my time in the South did teach me to empathize with Southerners of all political persuasions who are sick and tired of having the honor of their region traduced by moralizing Northern jackasses such as myself (however impressively informed and well-intentioned we might be). For enduring the constant shaming and petty ridicule of the North, Southerners deserve some sort of national medal.
Still, there seems to be something dysfunctionally (and uniquely) Dixie at play in a bellicosity so intense that it leads otherwise intelligent people to the trough of abuse rather than to the table of intelligent counterpoint when confronted with an opinion that’s critical of their way of thinking.
Not for nothin’, but these two things are not unrelated. Beleaguered populations circle their wagons. When someone suggests about how much more awesome the nation would be if it weren’t for those redneck hicks, someone else from the same region making “impressively informed and well-intentioned” criticisms is likely to be met with more hostility and less reason than they otherwise might. That’s not fair to the second person, but it’s also not happening in a vacuum.
As a product of the South, who left and is unlikely to ever return on a permanent basis, I always read these sorts of things on two levels. Substantively, I agree with a number of the criticisms and levy them myself. I disagree with other criticisms. Beneath it all, though, I primarily want the South to be a better place. I don’t doubt that many outside critics feel the same way. Sometimes it’s a desire for the South to simply be like them or agree with them, which is similar but not the same thing. Other times, though, one gets the distinct impression that the South’s role is merely to be that backwards place that thank heavens we are all better than.
The Confederate Flag is one of my ever-present examples. I want the flag to come down. I want it removed from Mississippi’s flag, I don’t want it flying over any statehouses or even any Confederate memorial graves (the Stars & Bars should be sufficient, as a historical relic). Now, I run into problems on two fronts. The first group is those that want to fly the flag and fly it proudly. The second group are outsiders who are demanding that the flag be taken down, but will ultimately heap a similar amount of scorn on the region if they do. Taking down the flag would not, after all, change the fundamental disagreements causing much of the conflict. Even absent the most fundamental thing (or the thing perceived as being most fundamental) – race – the divisions exist.
And, to be honest, as long as the State of Texas is depicted by some lunatic judge in Texas, and people choose to identify the south with the least desirable among them, well… it’s hard for the truly well-meaning to get a fair hearing. I don’t think that this is a phenomenon particularly unique to the South. Along these lines…
One wonders why this Southerner—and others who beat the same drum of outrage—are not instead asking, “Why is a KKK Grand Dragon able to operate a long-running business selling Klan robes, booklets outlining Klan rituals and related disease across from the courthouse in a town square in 2012?”
What, precisely, are southerners or Americans supposed to do to make them no longer “able” to operating such a business? Yet, until they are somehow driven out of business, they besmirch the region? A failure to close down a store on the basis of its politics is “looking the other way”? Objecting residents can boycott, but they are unlikely to be shopping there in the first place. As long as this is the metric by which the South is to be judged, it’s a losing proposition.
There are some similarities living in the non-urban Mountain West, and I would bet the Great Plains as well. What’s The Matter With Kansas and all that. There was a reason that Sarah Palin resonated so. The South, though, is in a league all its own in terms of reciprocal disdain.
I’m not trying to argue “poor little Dixie” here. I am among those that see some serious problems. I may see some things that are not problems or greatly exaggerated mixed in with the critical soup, but that doesn’t constitute much of a defense. I left the region and have little desire to go back. Further, I myself am guilty of the antagonism that I describe. Not towards the corner of the region where I grew up, but towards other areas lower on the pecking order of acceptable-thinking Americans.
A little while ago, I cocked an eyebrow when Mississippi State University announced itself as the location of the Ulysses Grant Presidential Library. My initial reaction to reading this was… not charitable. The more I read, though, the more interesting the story was. I was tempted to be dismissive because, well, we all know how a whole lot of Mississippians feel towards the Civil War. However, if that sort of thing is ever to change, southerners and southern organizations like MSU need to take these steps and need to be applauded for doing so. Skepticism, or holding over the belated timing of these things, undermines the forces for necessary change and emboldens intransigence. It pushes people in the middle away from compromise and encourages the circling of wagons.
I was raised in an extended family that was… not forward thinking, in many ways. With a view of history that does not stand up much to scrutiny. And growing up, I bought into a lot of it. That’s what happens when you’re taught something. Like a lot of people, I moved beyond that. But it’s an attractive myth. Wanting to be proud of where you come from. Making convenient the fact that a lot of the relics that have been passed on from generation to generation involve having been on the wrong side of one of the nation’s great moral struggles. It’s very seductive. It requires little in the way of mental gymnastics to not see any contradiction between having these views and having friends (or at least acquaintances) of color. And those people who talk trash about you and yours? It only helps the myth, really. People telling you that the country would be better off without the likes of you only hardens it. It’s a line in the sand that I was born on the wrong side of. One where it is a challenge to look at the line and agree with the actual dynamics of the righteous and wrong side.
The existence of sides, of course, is not the invention of the South’s critics. It is an invention of history and, to the extent that it lingers, primarily of the South itself. But to erase that line, and for the South to move beyond it, discussions about which Americans are the ideal Americans and which collective groups of people holding the rest of us back are counterproductive. Actions that are wrong should be criticized. People that commit actions that are wrong should be criticized. Looking at collective groups of people and identifying them by the loudest and most intransigent among them breeds intransigence. It empowers it.